America's Chitlin' Era

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

This weekend I finally opened the quarterly statements for my retirement accounts. After a few minutes of weeping and a few more spent calculating how many additional years I would now be forced to labor in the vineyard, I had a thought that cheered me.


Sure, the economy is staggering. Sure, we are five years into the devastating Iraq quagmire with no end in sight, while violence surges in Afghanistan and terrorism remains an ever-present threat. Sure, people are losing their homes; food and gas prices are soaring; banks are failing; bridges, roads and levies are crumbling at an alarming rate.

But look on the bright side: The worse things get for the country, the better the chances that Barack Obama will win in November. Not because Americans are sick to death of George W. Bush or because we've finally had enough of the Republican policies that have enriched the rich, endangered the poor and alienated us from the world community.

No, Obama will win because America is in the waning days of its glory—and black folks always get the tail end of things.

Think about it. Historically speaking, when is it that black people get stuff in America? Or, put it this way: When did we get O.J. back?

When the heels are down, when the dress is no longer in fashion, when the school books are scuffed and out-of-date, send them down to the colored people. (My mother, who grew up in Mississippi, can speak to these facts personally.) When the folks who had it first have taken all the good parts, it's time for us to move in. When the hams and loins and chops are gone and the only thing that remains are the slimy, waste-transferring guts. And so with our nation.

America has entered its Chitlin' Era. Obama is good to go.

There, I've named it. Americans always feel better when a people or an era or a generation has been named. The Roaring '20s, the "Greatest Generation," the Civil Rights Era, Yuppies, Buppies and BAPs. Naming helps us to get our arms around a concept, helps us to put things in their place. So, there you go.


The Chitlin' Era will be a time of diminishing American influence and power around the world. Our military, while still mighty, will no longer be unanswerable. The prosperity that has been our birthright will diminish. Our productivity and economic clout will continue to decline, along with the test scores of our kids compared to the rest of the world. China will keep nipping at our heels. Who better than a black man to cobble something together from these broken bits?

What does this mean for Americans in general, for black Americans in particular, for Obama himself?


On the good side, perhaps it will serve as a small reminder that there's another side to the never-ending debate about what's wrong with black people (manifested most recently by the four-hour-long CNN series Black in America). Whether "our problem" is really racism or culture, or some combination thereof, surely it is worthwhile to recognize and celebrate all that we have managed to accomplish given the available tools. Africans in America created culture(s), music(s), a language and a cuisine out of little more than scraps and leftovers, some of this and some of that. This is reason to be proud.

On the other hand, the Chitlin' Era does present some problems. For Obama, it no doubt means that, should he actually win, the tough challenges and high expectations that await him will be matched by deep bitterness and recriminations whenever he fails. And fail he will, sometimes; all presidents do. However, when The One tries to clean up the mess in which we find ourselves, it's gonna be stinky. Some people won't like it; they might get nervous and flee to the suburbs, which in this case would be Canada, I suppose. Those of us who stay and stick it out might find ourselves with only check-cashing stores and hair-supply shops for services. (Here, I fear I have lost control of my metaphor, but you know what I mean.)


But quiet as it's kept, some things do go back after going black. Neighborhoods, for instance. Look at Harlem, Northeast Portland, North Kenwood-Oakland in Chicago—all gentrifying at a rapid clip. A good friend of mine swears that the South End neighborhood of Boston—now home to a largely white, largely gay and so pricey a parking spot costs more than my house—was, 30 years ago, the poorest neighborhood in town. (And 30 years before that home to Boston's solid black middle class, including a huge segment of Pullman Porters.)

Likewise, the first time I took my children to visit the African Meeting House in Boston I was surprised to find it tucked away on Beacon Hill, one of the city's toniest, most exclusive slices of real estate. But then I learned that Beacon Hill, or at least the northern slope of it, had been the heart of black Boston in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Can you imagine? We owned the joint!


Trust me: This is no longer the case.

So, fret not, America. Face an Obama future with confidence. Remember that black folks are highly-skilled at making the best of a rotten situation. We excel at spinning straw into gold, or at least at taking offal and making dinner. We might all have to eat chitlins for a while. But we shall not starve.


Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.